5 ways to look more clever than you actually are

Not so long ago I missed my flight back from Sydney to Melbourne. When I realised I was eating dinner instead of being on a plane on the way home to my family I flipped out. Luckily I was with the wonderful @witty_knitter, who made me take some deep breaths and finish my sausages while she looked up the number for the airline. When I finally got through to a person at the call centre the conversation went something like this:

Call Centre worker: “It says here ‘Dr Mewburn’ – is that correct?”
Me: “That’s right”
Call centre worker: “And why is it that you missed your flight Dr Mewburn?”
Me: “I misread the ticket”
[a short pause]
Call centre worker: “How did you misread the ticket?”
Me: “Look, I have a PhD ok? It doesn’t make me immune from stupid”

Sadly this is true. A PhD involves an ability to learn new things and a certain amount of gritty determination, but it doesn’t make you immune from stupid. If anything, getting a PhD makes you  more aware of your limitations than you were before. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, if you know what I mean.

In my job I have the privilege to work with some extraordinarily intelligent people. I mean – really clever. Intimidatingly clever. Clever to the point where  I dare not open my mouth in some meetings for fear someone will discover I shouldn’t really be there. It’s not easy to live in a university and be of average intelligence so I have some coping strategies, developed by watching how clever people behave. The general principle here is: if I act like a clever person, I may become clever – or at least I will appear to be clever (which, existentially speaking, is the same thing).

So here’s 5 of my coping strategies – I hope you will write in with some of your own. Those of us who live by the ‘fake it until you make it’ principle need all the help we can get!

1) Wherever possible, be the one to speak last

When I first started going to meetings at the University I was always the first one to jump in and give my opinion. I think this was a hang over from my school days; I was the nerdy girl at the front of the class, always out to prove that I was smarter than anyone else. But being too eager to give your opinion all the time just doesn’t work in the professional world; more often than not people will think you are annoying rather than clever because you appear to monopolise the conversation.

I don’t always succeed in holding the nerdy girl inside, but at least I try. I can’t remember who gave me this advice, but I have tried it now for years and found it to be sound. If you wait and listen carefully to what others are saying it gives you time to reflect on and digest the conversation. If you speak last you are more likely to be the one who comes up with the unexpected, novel or creative suggestion at the end, rather than being the one who is just stating the obvious. If you can’t think of something creative, speaking last gives you the opportunity to connect what other people are saying together and offer an explanation or over riding principle which others will usually agree with – instant cleverness guaranteed.

2) Have some ‘pocket facts’ handy

As Mr Thesis Whisperer is fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. Throwing a few choice statistics about your field of expertise into a conversation will make you look extremely clever, without too much extra effort. For instance, I have lost count of the number of times I have sat in meetings where someone says that such and such must be true about doing a research degree because it was true for them, or because they have heard so often they assume it is true. Statements like “research students are poor communicators and need to be taught transferable skills” drive me really crazy, so I try to have some ‘pocket facts’ on hand to counter these common assumptions.

Recently my friend Nigel Palmer did an analysis which showed that most research students think they bring skills into their PhD, not the other way around. The only skill that students consistently claim they developed while studying for a PhD is library and information retrieval skills. This shouldn’t surprise us because 55.2% of students come to research degree study from the workplace, not from undergraduate degrees and a significant number of them have had a gap of more than 10 years since they last studied. That little statistic usually stops that particular line of criticism of research students dead.

You’re welcome.

3. Learn the lingo

Every place I have ever worked or studied has had its own dialect. At RMIT university we are extraordinarily fond of acronyms. Here’s a list of the ones I use on an almost daily basis when I talk with colleagues:

  • ATN
  • DDogs
  • RTS
  • AQF
  • PREQ
  • CES
  • DVC R&I

And that’s not counting the more esoteric ones, which I recognise, but don’t have to use often. Mr Thesis Whisperer calls these ‘TLAs’ (three letter acronyms) and they populate most advanced knowledge fields and institutions. Sadly, knowing the right TLAs, what they mean and how they relate to each other, makes you look clever. Luckily acquiring this sort of information is a bit like learning to spell: you only have to learn it once, and if you have a  decent memory, you will look clever for years and years.

4. Beware of jargon

Despite the fact that knowing the TLAs  is advantageous, if you speak in jargon too much the truly clever people will get suspicious. There’s an excellent chapter in Howard Becker’s book “writing for social scientists” (which should be renamed “writing for everyone”) which talks about the urge to “write classy”. It’s a trap thinking you can copy language you see in books and papers and it will make you appear more intelligent.

Now, I have absolutely no data to back this up, but in my experience of university life, most academics are not going to admit they don’t understand you, they just wont really listen to you (or cite your papers). People who can translate difficult concepts into language that others can understand are often more persuasive. Since persuasiveness often conflated with cleverness, speaking clearly and concisely is a winning strategy.  This is true as much for thesis writing, in my view, as it is for meetings and presentations.

5. Turn the problem around

Sometimes problems need simple solutions, not more complex ones. One trick which my boss shared with me recently is to ask: “what should we do less of?”. A disarmingly simple question, but an extremely powerful one. Take your thesis as one example: what can you do less of? The pomodoro technique is a good example of this principle in action. By working in shorter bursts, but with more focus and concentration, you can achieve more than sitting at your desk all day banging your head on the screen.

What do you think? Have you watched clever people in action while you are studying? What have you learned from them?

Related posts

How to win (academic) friends and influence people

Why you might be ‘stuck’

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42 thoughts on “5 ways to look more clever than you actually are

  1. Zelda (@tassie_gal) says:

    As I said to one of our amazing admin assistants about a month ago after I asked her to help me find something then realised I didnt need it as she emailed me, I may have a string of letters after my name, it does not mean I think before I act!

  2. is pollytickle (@pollytext) says:

    Insightful as always.

    I also find that old trick of just using the resources available around you works well. For example, finding both the connections between what people are saying, or locating the sticking point, is useful. Sometimes very clever people are not very good at working with others. A little facilitation and you’re part of the conversation again.

    Remembering that very clever people (that’s a TLA right there!) do not know everything about everything. You have your expertise too. Respect and be proud of that. Use it.

    Turning scary things into funny things. Like into a silly TLA: VCP. Or like the Alot: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

    Finally: something a friend just said: breath. Breathing is very simple, relaxes, and helps your brain to function. Plus it makes you happier.

  3. Sian says:

    Please could you spell out the acronyms, if they’re not too confidential? I think I’ve _seen_ DEEWR before, but only could translate DVC R&I if it came to it.

    I am particularly intrigued by DDogs.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Engage nerd mode:

      ATN: Australian technology universities (of which RMIT is a member). This is a companion organisation of the Group of 8 all under the universities australia (UA) banner. It’s basically a lobby group.
      DDogs: deans and directors of graduate studies (all the people in charge of research education in australia
      RTS: research training scheme, public funding of PhD programs (yes – citizens of Australia can do their PhD for free)
      TEQSA: tertiary education quality standards agency (government regulator of universities)
      AQF: australian qualification framework – don’t ask, it’s a nightmare
      DIISR: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
      DEEWR: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
      PREQ: post graduate research experience questionnaire (a national survey of research students in australia used to benchmark institutions
      CES: course experience survey (under graduate version of the same thing
      DVC R&I: deputy vice chancellor research and innovation – my bosses boss.

      Disengage nerd mode.

      • Sian says:

        Thanks! Also I am pleased that none of them are things I am already interacting with regularly in my work life (and just didn’t recognise the acronym).

      • Sylvie says:

        We’re currently going through briefing seminars to get everyone up-to-speed with the changes re: AQF, TEQSA etc… it’s mind boggling just to remember all the acronyms!
        I love the ‘DDogs’ one, which I learnt only today!
        Another insightful post Inger… I am learning to ‘hold back’ during staff meetings 🙂

  4. perkinsy says:

    Great advice – number 4 is one of my hobby horses. I am thoroughly unimpressed when people write in such a way that prevents the reader from understanding them. The writer does this thinking that this makes the writer look intelligent. This type of writing in the humanities needlessly places a barrier between the writer and readers outside the academy at a time when we need to be engaging more, not less with them. It also tends to mask someone who is really not on top of what they are writing about.

    Of course there is a time and a place when jargon should be used. A good communicator knows when and how to explain themselves without jargon.

  5. Blair says:

    A colleague (sadly) told me that dying your hair a dark colour (i.e. not being a blonde woman) helped. (She meant it, she wasn’t being funny.)

    • Laura Shepherd says:

      As someone interested in gender politics, I can confirm that one easy way to be taken more seriously in an academic environment (which may or may not correlate with how smart people *think* you are) is to perform behaviours stereotypically associated with masculinity: keep as still as possible (including while speaking – sit on your hands if necessary); work that poker face; keep your tone as low as possible; never preface with ‘I feel…’ or ‘I think…’ (opting instead for ‘It seems…’ or phrase as a rhetorical question); don’t volunteer to take on anything that could be construed as pastoral; don’t *ever* mention your kids. There’s a great cartoon showing a woman who asks to leave work early b/c there’s been a snafu with the day care and all her superiors get all sniffy about it; in the next frame a guy does the same thing and everyone’s all ‘Oh, isn’t he just fabulous?’. Not that I’m bitter, ahem.

  6. Fionnuala says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post! I have to say I have difficulties with no. 1, though. I too am a nerdy girl whose instinct is to get the conversation going, and so who is likelier than not to be the first to answer a question (and I aware of the problems that this entails of being the one to state the obvious and that others possibly perceive me as annoying and pushy), but I truly feel this is not from a need to prove myself as smarter than others, but rather because (admittedly my experience is still of class rather than meetings) I find it an infuriating experience to sit in a class where there is an uncomfortable silence. I am aware of this instinct, and so do my best to rein it in a lot of the time, in order to give everyone else a chance to speak, but equally I don’t think I should penalise myself for that instinct, and always repress what I have to say. Someone has to start the conversation, you know?

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s true. Sometimes one must speak first. It’s not a hard and fast rule, just a ‘where ever possible’ rule. ‘m happy to ask the first question at a conference presentation if everyone seems reluctant to speak for example. But in meetings I try to shut the hell up.

  7. Tim (@Tim_E_H) says:

    “In my job I have the privilege to work with some extraordinarily intelligent people. I mean – really clever. Intimidatingly clever.”


    “The general principle here is: if I act like a clever person, I may become clever – or at least I will appear to be clever (which, existentially speaking, is the same thing).”


    No one is *actually* clever, it’s a ruse that some learn to use with devastating effect.

    So remind me again, why do I still feel so dumb?

  8. Julio Peironcely says:

    The first and most important thing you need to learn for giving talks is not to answer something if you are not right. Otherwise you are at risk of looking stupid. Instead, memorize this and use it frequently:

    “You are right. That’s a very good point. We didn’t try that, but it is one of the things we plan to look next.”

  9. Giles says:

    (Yes, replying two months after the posting. I’ve just discovered the blog.)

    Re “1) Wherever possible, be the one to speak last”


    If the group you’re in penalises silly ideas so harshly that you’re more concerned with self-preservation than in getting whatever is being discussed done, it’s not a happy group. I’d suggest two even lower profile ways to stay safe:

    1a. Say nothing. (May be penalised for not being a “team player”, so only if applicable.)
    1b. Make a mild comment in support of the first sensible idea you hear spoken, be it the first comment or the penultimate one. That way you’re not always speaking last and won’t appear timid even though this _is_ a strategy of timidity.

    If the group you are part of is trying to work as a team and has a reasonable amount of trust, it’s of benefit sometimes to _encourage_ the more junior people to speak first, so that they won’t be influenced by what “older and wiser” heads say.

    Finally, why do you want to appear smarter than you are? All that does is get you uncomfortably hard problems to solve! Since such problems appear in my professional life without encouragement, the last thing I want to do is encourage more!

  10. Tony Meacham says:

    Just an update. DEEWR and DIISr as departments don’t exist any more. To remain clever with acronyms, you have to make sure that you stay up to date about these things. Stuff related to government particularly changes faster than even those within it can keep up. Governments like changing department names at least once or twice in an administration.

  11. vvvyxwyruc@gmail.com says:

    Awesome blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any tips? Thanks a lot!

  12. Anonymous says:

    This was just copied off Wiki How, was’t it? I was actually looking for some new information, believe it or not.

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